Archive for August 2009

Halloween II (2009)

August 30, 2009

halloween-2-poster-art-290I’m not a Rob Zombie hater. I like his music, I’ve liked most of his movies, and I like that deep down he’s just a horror/exploitation fan. He seems to have devoted every waking moment of his life to worshiping at the shrine of lovable drive-in trash (and I don’t use “trash” as a pejorative in this context). Zombie’s 2007 remake of John Carpenter’s classic Halloween was, I felt, a huge misstep. His sequel is a whole different animal; it’s as if he made the remake so that he could make the sequel.

I’d still prefer to see Zombie truly doing his own thing instead of trying to do his own thing within someone else’s thing. But Halloween II is a marked advance for him. He’s discovered beauty, for one thing — he seems to have realized that an entire movie of grunge and sticky blood is visually numbing. So he has introduced various dreams and visions into the picture: the unstoppable killer Michael Myers (Tyler Mane) confronts his spectral mother (Sheri Moon Zombie), along with his younger self and a white horse (which, according to the opening text, signifies rage). Meanwhile, Michael’s target, his long-lost sister Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), has the same visions, plus nightmares of being laid out at some sort of mad Halloween party presided over by figures in rotting pumpkin masks. Zombie, at least, is trying to work in some psychological and imagistic depth.

Unfolding almost entirely at night, and with a bare minimum of flashbacks to The Sorrows of Young Michael, Halloween II is the movie most of us hoped Zombie’s Halloween would be. There’s an extended sequence of carnage that’s an it-was-only-a-dream cheat, but for the most part Zombie has found the mood he wants to strike. The white horse, it turns out, could stand in for everyone in the film — the prevailing emotion is rage. Zombie takes the once-heroic Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) and turns him into a money-chasing publicity hound, pimping his book about Michael everywhere. I don’t know about the hypocrisy of the dialogue calling Loomis a ghoul for profiting off Michael’s murders when Zombie is doing the same thing, but there’s a hint or two that Loomis has been spiritually deformed by his contact with Michael, trying to wrest some kind of meaning out of the whole affair by recasting himself as a lauded scholar making lucrative appearances on his serial-killer tour.

Laurie, too, is significantly damaged; a year later, she’s in therapy (with Margot Kidder in an odd bit as her shrink) and living with Annie Brackett (Danielle Harris) and her sheriff dad (Brad Dourif). She can’t sleep, she’s working at a cafe with two snarky girls, she’s apparently gone vegan and gotten a tattoo and turned her living space into a wreck of graffiti. Scout Taylor-Compton didn’t impress me much in the first film, but here she has more to chew on, and she bites down hard. The acting in general here is on a higher level than you’d expect — Dourif in particular shines, creating a warmly idiosyncratic human being out of Sheriff Brackett — and Zombie recruits old-timers like Kidder, Howard Hesseman (dude, where have you been?), and Daniel Roebuck, not to mention an impish cameo by Weird Al Yankovic.

The key thing here is that, to Zombie, Michael Myers seems the least interesting thing on the screen, unlike the 2007 film, which was All Michael All the Time, to the detriment of the rest of the movie. Here, Michael is a grunting ogre who just brute-strengths his prey to death. Every so often, Zombie brings him on so he can break someone and moves on. The focus is much more on Laurie and her anguish, especially after she discovers the connection between her and Michael. The kills aren’t meant to thrill us; they’re ugly, pounding encounters (the poor guy who gets his face stomped into jelly is probably the worst). Michael himself wears his tattered mask over a long hillbilly beard and looks like a hobo; there’s nothing remotely “cool” about him, nothing this film’s target audience can hook into or enjoy. He’s not smart, not funny, not stylishly diabolical. He looks like he probably smells terrible. He’s not “purely and simply evil”; he’s purely and simply rage.

Give Zombie some credit: handed the keys to this franchise, he’s turned it into a statement on the ugliness of death and the toxic legacy of bad upbringing. That wasn’t what John Carpenter’s original was about, but it’s a damn sight more interesting than any of the original sequels — including 1981’s Halloween 2, which had its moments but was essentially same shit, different location. There are bits and images in this film that would ensure praise from the horror-fan crowd if they weren’t in a Halloween movie directed by Rob Zombie.

The Final Destination

August 29, 2009

final-destination-posterThe more I think about it, the more I favor Final Destination 2 (2003) as perhaps the best American horror-comedy of the decade. It was a brilliant piece of Saturday-night entertainment, really; the prolonged death scenes had a kind of slapstick beauty, especially the poor bastard who won the lottery and almost died about fifty times in his kitchen before finally buying it outside in the alley.

That was the peak of the series, though; Final Destination 3 (2006) was weak sauce, and now we have The Final Destination, shown in some theaters in 3D. I’m torn: should I say that only the 3D makes it marginally worth it — in which case you’ll pay an extra four or five bucks for the same shitty movie with stuff flying out at you — or should I advise you to Netflix it and get a lesser 3D effect at home?

Aah, don’t waste your time on this either way. We have the same premise: a teenager has a premonition of an impending catastrophe — here, it’s an inferno at a race track — and manages to get himself, his friends and a few others out of harm’s way; then Death, having been cheated, picks them all off, one by one, in elaborate Rube Goldberg ways, in the order in which they would’ve been killed earlier. But this series has clearly run out of ideas. The deaths are tired. 3D doesn’t help much — the novelty is fun for about five minutes, and the racetrack sequence has some decent splashy moments. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the highway mayhem at the beginning of the second film, in which we saw so many little bits of business that led inexorably to disaster — I still remember the detail of the water bottle rolling underneath a woman’s brake.

What’s surprising is that The Final Destination shares a director (David R. Ellis) and a writer (Eric Bress) with Final Destination 2; that, combined with the 3D, got my hopes up a little. Maybe, just maybe, this franchise would go out with a spectacular Viking funeral. But Ellis and Bress just seem dispirited to be regressing. They did this stuff as perfectly as it could be done six years ago; now here they are again, going through the motions. It doesn’t help that the quartet of kids this time are the most boring group of survivors in any of the films.

Listen: I went to see this thing opening night. When you go to a horror flick on the first Friday night, you know what you’re getting: a hooting, hollering audience — if you’re lucky, and if the movie is wild enough to light a fire under their asses. The crowd I sat with, except for an effusive young gentleman sitting to my right (“Aw shit, that nigga gonna die,” he kept saying, amusing me more than the screenplay did), was quietly unimpressed most of the time. There’s a fiery cataclysm in a movie theater, but that gets taken back — it’s only another premonition, and now we have to watch the boring lead try to avert the apocalypse.

The movie keeps blowing opportunities. The asshole of the group, a smug golf-playing frat type, has a quickie with a topless woman, and don’t the filmmakers know that if you’re going to hire an actress for this sort of scene in a 3D movie, you hire an actress whose proportions, ahem, make the most of the 3D? Later, the same asshole dives into a pool and gets sucked ass-first into the drain, apparently not having read Chuck Palahniuk’s notorious story “Guts.” We see the bloody result outside the pool, but we don’t get an underwater shot of what’s left of the poor bastard in the pool.

The audience filed out quickly, maybe even shamefacedly — they’d spent goddamn $12.95, and they could’ve gone to see Halloween II instead. Now that’s a sad commentary, when Halloween II looks like the better horror movie of the weekend.

15 Years Later: Natural Born Killers

August 26, 2009

Fifteen years ago today, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers landed shrieking onto the American consciousness like some demented, misshapen eagle. I went to see it twice — once on opening weekend, again a week or so later — and both times vaguely feared for my life.

I was right at the tail end of NBK‘s target demographic, 18-25 (I’d recently turned 24). The theater was packed with people in my age group, and many of them were high. There was a pungent Dionysian party vibe. People came to NBK already fucked up, prepared to get more fucked up by the film itself. A humid air of potential violence — a fistfight, maybe worse — filled the room, and the movie itself both fed on this vibe of incipient hostility and perpetuated it. I did not feel safe. The film did not feel safe, and was not intended to be. Something in the whole of its seething blend of styles and tones was larger than the movie’s parts: dark, evil, ugly. The bog-standard trailer predicted none of this. We knew it was going to be a wild ride, but we weren’t expecting a meta-horror movie cackling at the gory downfall of man.

Natural Born Killers, of course, was not initially envisioned this way. Fledgling screenwriter Quentin Tarantino framed it as a gritty 16mm satire, a road movie that focused at least as much on tabloid-TV reporter Wayne Gale as on Mickey and Mallory Knox, the homicidal lovers who cut a psilocybin-laced swath of death, notoriety and cult celebrity across America. Through complex circumstances best left enumerated by coproducer Jane Hamsher’s enormously entertaining book Killer Instinct, Tarantino more or less ended up selling the script and washing his hands of it, while Oliver Stone and collaborators David Veloz and Richard Rutowski made the script more expansive and weird. The result — right down to the appearance of an Indian shaman*, a de rigueur touch for Stone’s movies in the ’90s — is really more an Oliver Stone film than a Tarantino film.

Does it succeed? Fifteen years on, I’m still not sure. The movie is nothing if not heavy-handed — Stone apparently considers it “subtle” — and on some level I can’t help but agree with a friend who said that once you’ve watched NBK up through the infamous Rodney Dangerfield sitcom scene, you’ve essentially seen the movie’s bag of tricks, and the remainder, though dazzling in parts, just reiterates the opening fifteen minutes on a loop for two hours. Yet no movie had ever looked, sounded or played quite like NBK. The corrosive eye-candy effect achieved by the use of many different film stocks and lighting schemes had been tested by Stone in The Doors and JFK, but NBK was his master’s thesis in this Cuisinart style. It was perfect for a channel-surfing Generation X too hip to believe in cultural heroes; the closest thing they’d had ate a shotgun the previous spring.

As you can tell by Warner’s hopelessly square trailer, NBK was never expected to be a runaway hit, and it wasn’t one. It did open at #1 with $11 million, barely edging out the behemoth Forrest Gump (which was in its eighth week of release) but handily butchering its new competitors, Camp Nowhere and Wagons East. It also enjoyed by far the highest per-screen average of the weekend. The buzz worked. But it wasn’t enough to propel it beyond a modest hit. After a surprising second weekend in which it only dipped 6%, NBK settled down to more standard numbers, finishing its domestic run with $50 million and change — about the same as Angels in the Outfield and The Crow.

It continued to provide tabloid fodder, though, well into the ’90s and beyond. For a while, it seemed as though every maladjusted lump of young white trash who killed anybody pointed to NBK as an inspiration. (That or Marilyn Manson.) Lawyer turned hack author John Grisham, whose friend had been killed in one of the supposed copycat sprees, crusaded against the film, laughably comparing works of art to defective breast implants. I’m of two minds about whether NBK, or any work of fiction, can be directly causally linked to real-life horrors. It’s certainly possible that if a film, book, album, etc., can inspire good, it can also inspire evil. But only if the capacity for good or evil is already there. NBK may have given young idiots a narrative to emulate, but it didn’t hypnotically (or psychotronically) change average viewers into the sort of people who would emulate that narrative. You don’t walk into NBK as a God-fearin’ Boy Scout and walk out as Dylan Klebold. A lot of stuff has to happen along the way before you get to the point where you’re hunting humans.

Aside from the controversy, has the film endured — has it transcended the controversy? It doesn’t seem to have become much of a cultural marker — not nearly as much as the other Tarantino-penned film later that same year, Pulp Fiction. Not that it matters a whole lot, but it got no Oscar nominations — not even for Robert Richardson’s whirligig cinematography or the crazy-quilt editing by Brian Berdan and Hank Corwin.

Though it keeps getting blamed for real-world brutality, NBK would seem to have been a very of-the-moment phenomenon, coming as it did on the heels of the Menendez brothers, Tonya Harding, and O.J. — all of whom get trotted out at the end. The thing is, Stone wanks on the same murderer-as-celebrity point over and over again, a point that had already been made just a few months earlier in John Waters’ Serial Mom, which itself was something of a kinder, gentler rewrite of Waters’ Female Trouble from twenty years before. Even stylistically, NBK hasn’t aged well, since its then-outrageous format has been bitten by everything from commercials to Tony Scott films.

If it holds up on a deeper level, it’s as a retch of disgust at a specific cultural moment — a queasy snapshot. Beware those who try to tell you NBK is “more relevant than ever.” Serial killers aren’t lionized, they’re demonized. The media — including the internet, which wasn’t around (or at least not in many homes) when NBK was released — chews everything, spits it out, and goes on to the next movable feast. My feeling is that the media fever broke when Princess Di got killed. It didn’t make paparazzi look in the mirror and confront the void where their souls should be, but it did signal a shift in what America was interested in. Americans felt bad about the role they had played in Diana’s death. The tabloids are still fixated on bullshit and scandal, and nauseating “reality shows” are everywhere, but all of it just seems like background noise now. In short, the conditions NBK railed against don’t really exist any more. America sweated out that sickness. And I’m not wholly convinced that America’s fascination with OJ, Tonya, and the Menendez brothers was due to their glamorous outlaw status; it was because they’d gotten caught. I would attribute the fascination more to schadenfreude than to a morbid fixation (although there will always be a subset of murder groupies). If there were an actual Mickey and Mallory out there somewhere, the nation would be terrified, not smitten (and this was the case back in ’94, too). Again, Tarantino was tweaking the tabloid-TV true-crime shows, which mostly profiled already-captured serial killers or the occasional unsolved crime.** People will always want to gawk at killers and try to figure out what’s going on in their heads, but that’s a lot different from turning them into rock stars. It’s more like picking up a rock and staring with transfixed disgust at whatever is squirming underneath.

A viewer who was born in 1994 — he or she would be fourteen or fifteen now — might look at NBK and find it as quaint as people of my generation found once-radical films like Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate once we finally got around to renting them. NBK is the ultimate you-had-to-be-there film; it was made for a very specific audience, who responded eagerly and then moved on to Pulp Fiction, which drew a wider audience. After Reservoir Dogs, his calling card, Quentin Tarantino only made magnum opuses (the just-for-the-hell-of-it Death Proof was an aberration). NBK wouldn’t have fit into his scheme — he intended it as a fast, dirty drive-in picture with satire here and there. Oliver Stone zeroed in on the satirical elements and added to them until it metastasized into an unruly, unholy Grand Statement on Where We Are Now in 1994.

Of the three Tarantino scripts directed by other hands — Tony Scott’s True Romance and Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk Till Dawn being the others — NBK probably has the least rewatchability (and it’s certainly not as quotable). Its rabid-wolf groove feels too hysterically beside-the-point, its satirical darts blunted by time. It is, however, the closest of the three to art, and certainly the most ambitious. Unpleasant and thorny to the touch, it is uncompromisingly what it is. I tend to doubt that a large portion of its audience took its satirical message away with them; it was a freak-out, and was probably honestly received as such. Yet the chaos is often beautiful, even at its ugliest — especially at its ugliest. It’s tailor-made for home video, where you can watch your favorite insane bits of business. As if to mark its fifteenth birthday, Warner is unveiling a Blu-ray in October containing Stone’s preferred cut (the theatrical cut hit Blu-ray last summer). Having seen both versions, I don’t really know which one I favor. The thrill of the R-rated print was in witnessing what (in 1994) Stone could get away with and still avoid the dreaded NC-17; the uncut version offers little besides added gore, for those who dote on such things.

Of the many actors playing to the back seats, the most genuine and frightening performance belongs to Tom Sizemore as the corrupt, psychotic detective Jack Scagnetti, who kills hookers, writes hard-bitten James Ellroy-esque true-crime books glorifying his various busts, and sits in a miserably horny flop sweat when he’s finally alone with his dream girl Mallory. Sizemore, who would later make his own tabloid headlines, seems to be not only in a different movie but on a different plane of reality. It’s great work from a fine actor who in recent years has drifted into insanity and oblivion. If Robert Downey Jr. deserved a career do-over — and he did — so does Sizemore. Where’s his Marvel Comics superhero movie?

As I’ve said before, sometimes a work of art breaks free from the artist’s intentions and becomes its own willful beast. “A filmmaker can say things about his movie,” I wrote about Michael Haneke’s 2008 remake of his own Funny Games, “but the film itself might rudely contradict him.” Everyone involved in NBK expressed surprise that it could be taken as anything other than a stern condemnation of the media celebrating outlaws. This is disingenuous. The audience has been both terrified and enthralled by screen violence going at least as far back as 1902, when Edwin S. Porter had a robber fire his gun directly at us in The Great Train Robbery. To believe what NBK‘s makers claim, we would have to believe that the film, and its marketing (including a successful Trent Reznor-dominated soundtrack album), somehow exist outside “the media.”

Oh, heavens no, we’re not glorifying Mickey and Mallory, the filmmakers objected; we’re actually doing the opposite, and if you interpret the film another way, you just don’t get it. I think we “get it” more than the filmmakers did. At no point are Mickey and Mallory revealed, narratively or stylistically, to be the squalid, toxic little shitheads they would be in real life. Nor are we asked to identify with their many victims — indeed, at times we are asked to laugh at the grief of those who knew the victims (I think of Dale Dye’s cameo as a cop weeping copiously, with obvious fake tears, over the death of a fellow cop in a meant-to-be-cheesy re-enactment). We are also asked to sympathize with Mickey and Mallory’s soul-crushing childhoods. By “satirizing” the media adoration of Mickey and Mallory, NBK blunders into the old trap of becoming what it’s supposed to be excoriating.

Then again, by all accounts it was a pretty insane shoot, even by Oliver Stone standards. People partied hard and went to dark, weird places in their heads while working on the film. I think the film reflects that. Jane Hamsher quoted Stone as saying once, “There’s a demon on this set.” There may well have been. There’s something sulfurous and chaotic about the movie. Drugs were taken, spirits were summoned. It’s the sort of movie that usually has a curse attached to it, like Poltergeist. In this case the curse might be the copycat killings. Some portal was opened and something bad got out. I’m not proposing any of this literally, I’m just saying … the whole energy of the film is rancid, ominous. I honestly believe the filmmakers had the best intentions and the movie just got off its leash and got away from them at full speed.

It sure is fascinating, though, watching the film flail around trying to be one thing or another, making its “points” while the whole of the experience bulldozes any such points. It’s a mesmerizing folly made by people who don’t truly seem to know what they’re making. In an unused alternate ending, Stone had Mickey and Mallory get their comeuppance via a fellow prison escapee (Arliss Howard, pictured above in a moment of foreshadowing in the film’s opening scene — said foreshadowing was rendered moot after Stone went with a different ending), who comes on to Mallory and then shotguns them both. Here was the perfect way to turn the killers’ brutal caprice back onto them — a bland monster who just ends them for no very good reason. Stone ultimately went with a denouement in which Mickey and Mallory are seen raising their own children, who will, we assume, be reared with more love than Mickey and Mallory were. So the killers get away and live happily ever after. Stone may have seen this ending as more hip and subversive than the crime-does-not-pay ending, but all it does is leave the audience, which for two hours has been following Mickey and Mallory with interest and sympathy, on a high note rather than a bummer. Some may say, once again, that this is a satire of a happy Hollywood ending. I say it just is one.


*The Indian was not in Tarantino’s original script, which simply had Mickey and Mallory getting captured at a Circle K. In the film, Mickey’s ‘shroom-addled accidental killing of the Indian is what leads to the couple’s downfall, since they get bitten by a snake in the same place and they seek an antidote at Drug Zone, which is where they finally get nabbed.

**It is interesting in retrospect to note that Mickey and Mallory, like the Basterds in Tarantino’s later Inglourious Basterds, always leave one person alive to tell the tale.

Inglourious Basterds

August 23, 2009

inglourious_basterds_ver7In Inglourious Basterds, the quintessential Quentin Tarantino scene unfolds again and again: a long, sinister conversation between someone with power and someone without. Usually, but not always, the powerful person is a Nazi, imposing on someone’s time at excruciating length; it’s rambling as triumph of the will. None of this is as boring as it may sound: Tarantino plumbs these sequences for considerable suspense. When will the Nazi get to the point, or go away, or just kill someone and break the tension? The menacing one-sided chat goes on and on, while the listener sweats and tries not to give up whatever information is being demanded. In Tarantino-land, the Nazis don’t have to torture you; they talk to you.

Brad Pitt and his merry band of “Basterds” are less loquacious (though Pitt, too, uses the chatty method of extracting info). This group of Jewish-American soldiers, led by Pitt the Gentile hillbilly, prefers to rough up their Nazi prey, often for the sheer bullying fun of it. A glowering Boston Jewish bruiser, played by Hostel director Eli Roth, emerges from the shadows with a baseball bat and ends a frightened German soldier rather messily. The Basterds’ story is interwoven with that of a French Jewish girl (Mélanie Laurent), who escapes the Nazis early on and winds up managing a Paris movie theater; she has violent plans of her own. Pitt and Laurent are two sides of the same vengeful coin, with movie-love giving it a hot spin.

Tarantino always sets out to make The Ultimate Movie of Everything Quentin Loves. Inglourious Basterds is his brutal-cool reverie on war, though until the very end he stops short of wholeheartedly enjoying the sadism — the young, terrified German soldiers Pitt mutilates are humanized as much as the victims of the Nazis, and sometimes we feel that those German soldiers are victims of the Nazis, unpolitical kids conscripted into an insane system they might not believe in. The chief villain is an elaborately inquisitive “Jew hunter,” a Nazi colonel who in saner times might have been a great detective; sportively played by Christophe Waltz, this Nazi is allowed depth of motive and layers of feeling about what he does. He’s also a bit of a boor, endlessly impressed with himself.

The marquee star is Brad Pitt, and he turns in a one-note performance — malevolent amusement, mostly — though the note is consistently entertaining. The 26-year-old Mélanie Laurent, an actress to watch, sprinkles her deadpan with barbs of rage and grief. Once again, a woman walks away with a Tarantino film, and he cheerfully lets her take it. Inglourious Basterds is a long, strange pop artifact, studded with instant-classic moments and sealed with a legitimately great image of a laughing face swathed in fire and smoke — even if the entire film were junk, it’d be worth it for that shot alone, an immaculate essay-in-pictures about the power of cinema. As always, Tarantino works with a heady mix of playfulness and classical rigor, and getting out of L.A. and America — as he also did with Kill Bill — adds a pleasant old-world gravitas to his play. He may appreciate the Basterds on a bad-ass Lee Marvin level, but the French girl who shows movies — and shows that the dream Leni Riefenstahl helped build can be blown apart the same way — is his true hero. I don’t know whether Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s masterpiece (it’s too early to say), but it proves he’s still a master.

District 9

August 17, 2009

482They used to say August was a dead zone for movies, the dumping ground for summer films that couldn’t compete with the big dogs of May and June. Not any more. When one weekend in August brings us Hayao Miyazaki’s magnificent Ponyo and Neill Blomkamp’s perfect piece of parable entertainment District 9, it’s time to reassess the eighth month. Like the best sci-fi, District 9 is a sociopolitical allegory of sorts, equating repressed and dispossessed aliens with the forced relocation of Cape Town residents. It’s also a kick-ass monster movie, though the monsters tend to be the humans, and the audience hoots when an alien turns one of the bad guys into a fine red mist.

There’s an honest-to-god character arc here — remember those? Remember when there were actual characters in summer entertainment? The hero here is Wikus van der Merwe, a dorky clipboard-carrier for the MNU (Multi-National United), which has kept the aliens (or “prawns”) in squalor for 28 years while trying to figure out how to use the aliens’ weaponry. (The weapons only work if an alien uses them.) Wikus is played by Sharlto Copley as a mix of Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy and Lionel Cosgrove, the dweeby but ultimately heroic protagonist of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. (Jackson produced and “presents” District 9.) Wikus starts out as an amiably callous company drone, treating the aliens with offensive jocularity as he tries to get their “signatures” to “approve” their relocation from the ghettos of Johannesburg to a place with even less stellar conditions.

Things happen, and Wikus slowly, organically begins to empathize with the “prawns.” We do, too, as the film introduces an intelligent “prawn” and his plucky little son, who keeps saying things like “We go home now?” The special effects in District 9 are subtly dazzling, creating computer-generated aliens that always seem to exist in actual space. The movie’s atmosphere — hot, hazy, grungy — made me glad of the theater’s air conditioning. Blomkamp and his team have built a physically persuasive world here, even if many of its people are sort of caricatures. The chief villains — an MNU higher-up, a bald gung-ho mercenary, a wheelchair-bound Nigerian warlord — ooze cartoonish menace. But that’s part of the fun and the irony — the “prawns,” with their icky tendrils and unintelligible masticatory speech, come to seem more human than the humans.

In truth, District 9’s credibility as an allegory has been a bit overstated elsewhere, and probably won’t stand up to close scrutiny — otherwise you’re essentially saying that black South Africans are ugly chattering crustaceans addicted to cat food. Neill Blomkamp grew up in Johannesburg, and he thought it would be a fine desolate place to set a sci-fi film — that’s more or less how far we should take the analogy. But it is a backdrop we don’t often see outside of art-house dramas. And the action sequences are clean, exciting, inventive, and always rooted in an identifiable goal. The movie also has the most emotionally perfect final shot since Shaun of the Dead, which, like this film, did not originate in Hollywood. We Americans used to be good at this stuff, maybe at one time the best. Not any more. But it’s good that other world citizens are taking up the slack.

Ponyo

August 10, 2009

ponyo-poster1At this point, calling Hayao Miyazaki the Japanese Walt Disney does Miyazaki a disservice: Even Disney in his prime didn’t have the long and dazzling streak that Miyazaki has had. For decades now, Miyazaki has produced one stunner after another, simple yet complex fables about the uneasy relationship between man and nature — more uneasy on nature’s side, actually. His latest, Ponyo,* is a bit like The Little Mermaid run through Miyazaki’s psychedelic, eco-conscious filter.

Miyazaki wastes no time boggling our eyes: thirty seconds in, we’re floating amid a seething nebula of jellyfish. Up on the surface, fishing boats give off warm, distant illumination. In the movie’s scheme, the boats are necessary evils, but still formidable, so they have their own beauty. In the deep, a goldfish sired by a once-human undersea wizard yearns to break out of her safe but stifling haven, and she does. She gets caught up in a fishing net, and a boy named Sosake finds her lodged in a glass jar. He gets her out, puts her in a bucket and names her Ponyo. The fish and the boy take a liking to each other, and soon Ponyo breaks into her father’s magical vault and gains the power to become human.

This, needless to say, throws the balance of things way out of whack. Ponyo, one of Miyazaki’s more generous works, is a dream of reconciliation between the sea and the land, or nature and man. It comes at a cost, though: Fujimoto, the wizard, unleashes a flood of mystical creatures that seem to change from fish to water and back again, and Sosuke’s seaside town is swamped. His father Koichi is on a fishing boat, his whereabouts unknown; his mother Lisa, a bat-out-of-hell driver, has taken off to make sure the nursing home where she works is safe. That leaves Sosuke and Ponyo to drift by themselves to find his parents, while Ponyo’s own parents — her mother is Granmammare, a powerful sea goddess with billowing hair — disagree about Ponyo’s chosen path.

As in many Miyazaki films (Princess Mononoke comes immediately to mind), there are no clearcut villains. The bitter Fujimoto wants nothing to do with humans, but he doesn’t cackle over the prospect of the moon going out of orbit and plunging the earth into primordial watery chaos — he recognizes that whatever kills humans will also kill everything else. Ponyo’s ecological concerns flow organically through the narrative, never dictating it. At its simplest level, like WALL•E, it’s a mismatched love story. Sosuke is tested: can he love Ponyo as either a girl or a fish? We could ask ourselves the same, sort of: can we love nature as it is, or do we need to map anthropomorphism over it, seeing fish and trees and nature itself as reflections of ourselves?

Quiet beauty reigns here; Miyazaki generally isn’t about big flamboyant “wow” moments, though he gives us some anyway. To watch Sosuke and Ponyo floating through the submerged town in a toy boat Ponyo has enlarged for the occasion, or Ponyo skipping across huge fish in pursuit of Lisa’s car, or Lisa and Granmammare standing in the distance talking, is to relearn the wonder of subtlety. With the possible exception of Up, Ponyo towers over this summer of empty toy-related blockbusters. It will end up as one of the best films in American release this year.

*This review refers to the Japanese-language, subtitled version of Ponyo; the version released in American theaters may be a bit different.

Neko Ramen Taisho

August 10, 2009

neko_rahmen_taisho_flyerIn the “Only in Japan” department: We have here a cat who makes ramen, or noodle soup. Taisho, the cat, has been the hero of a manga series and an animated flash series. So of course Minoru Kawasaki, the irrepressible director of Executive Koala and The World Sinks Except Japan, chose to adapt this material as a live-action film. With a plush puppet cat as Taisho. Neko Ramen Taisho thus becomes a kind of weird meta experience: Taisho and two other cats — his father and a cutie kitty who bats its eyelashes at Taisho — are plush, but other cats in the movie are real, and Taisho interacts with some of them. The humans in the film seem unfazed by talking with plush cats (or eating ramen prepared by plush cats), though the real cats often look askance at Taisho. (One of the real cats is Tama, famous in Japan for being named an honorary stationmaster. Only in Japan.)

Taisho starts out trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, a hugely popular “cat idol” appearing in cat food commercials. But Taisho doesn’t have it in him, and he wanders around in despair until a kindly ramen-shop owner takes Taisho under his wing and shows him the art of making noodle soup. We end up with something like a cross between Garfield and Tampopo, with Taisho always slouching around, rarely changing his agitated expression. He befriends a regular customer (J-pop star Kazuki Kato), whose new girlfriend isn’t impressed by Taishô’s old-school ramen: You see, there’s a flashy new ramen joint around the corner…

It all leads to an Iron Chef-style cook-off, televised for a nation of eager viewers (only in Japan), that generates a surprising level of suspense. By this time, we have fully entered into the surreal meta contract, and we are emotionally invested in the outcome of a contest between two obvious plush puppets. Maybe Minoru Kawasaki isn’t as crazy as we’d thought. Puppets have an advantage over, say, computer animation: They’re built and operated by humans, and they exist in real space. Whether you’re watching the Muppets or Meet the Feebles or Neko Ramen Taisho, you end up falling for the trickery, even if it’s comically transparent, as it is here. It helps that Taisho has real human actors rooting for him against the arrogant bastard he’s competing with. Neko Ramen Taisho is a fun and bubbly 80 minutes, and it makes the predictable but pleasing point that substance trumps style, and what pleases the fickle taste buds may not always sit well in the stomach. Plus, of course, it has a plush puppet cat attempting suicide and trying to make a living as a sushi chef, a cab driver and a surgeon before finding his true calling as a ramen master. Only in Japan.


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